E.T.A. Hoffmann: “The Deserted House” 2/3

Excerpt, “The Lock and Key Library: Classic Mystery and Detective Stories – German.” Edited by Julian Hawthorne, 1909


“Oh fairest creature of my dreams,” I cried in rapture. “Reveal to me where thou art, what it is that enthralls thee. Ah, I know it! It is black magic that holds thee captive — thou art the unhappy slave of that malicious devil who wanders about brown-clad and bewigged in pastry shops, scattering their wares with his unholy springing, and feeding his demon dog on macaroons, after they have howled out a Satanic measure in five-eight time. Oh, I knew it all, thou fair and charming vision. The diamond is the reflection of the fire of thy heart. But that bracelet about thine arm is a link of the chain which the brown-clad one says is a magnetic chain.
Do not believe it, O glorious one! See how it shines in the blue fire from the retort. One moment more and thou art free. And now, O maiden, open thy rosebud mouth and tell me –” In this moment a gnarled fist leaped over my shoulder and clutched at the crystal bottle, which sprang into a thousand pieces in the air. With a faint, sad moan, the charming vision faded into the blackness of the night.
When morning came to put an end to my dreaming, I hurried to the avenue and placed myself before the deserted house. Heavy blinds were drawn before the upper windows. The street was still quite empty, and I stepped close to the windows of the ground floor and listened and listened; but I heard no sound. The house was as quiet as the grave. The business of the day began, the passers-by became more numerous, and I was obliged to go on. I will not weary you with the recital of how for many days I crept about the house at that hour, but without discovering anything of interest. None of my questionings could reveal anything to me, and the beautiful picture of my vision began finally to pale and fade away.
At last as I passed, late one evening, I saw that the door of the deserted house was half open and the brown-clad old man was peeping out. I stepped quickly to his side with a sudden idea. “Does not Councilor Binder live in this house?” Thus I asked the old man, pushing him before me as I entered the dimly lighted vestibule. The guardian of the old house looked at me with his piercing eyes, and answered in gentle, slow tones: “No, he does not live here, he never has lived here, he never will live here, he does not live anywhere on this avenue. But people say the ghosts walk about in this house.
Yet I can assure you that it is not true. It is a quiet, a pretty house, and tomorrow the gracious Countess S. will move into it. Good night, dear gentleman.” With these words the old man maneuvered me out of the house and locked the gate behind me. I heard his feet drag across the floor, I heard his coughing and and the rattling of his bunch of keys, and I heard him descend some steps. Then all was silent. During the short time that I had been in the house, I had noticed that the corridor was hung with old tapestries and furnished like a drawing-room with large, heavy chairs in red damask.
And now, as if called into life by my entrance into ther mysterious house, my adventures began. The following day, as I walked through the avenue in the noon hour, and my eyes sought the deserted house as usual, I saw something glistening in the last window of the upper story. Coming nearer I noticed that the outer blind had been quite drawn up and the inner curtain slightly opened. The sparkle of a diamond met my eye. O kind Heaven! The face of my dream looked at me, gently imploring, from above the rounded arm on which her head was resting. But how was it possible to stand still in the moving crowd without attracting attention?
Suddenly, I caught sight of the benches placed in the gravel walk in the center of the avenue, and I saw that one of them was directly opposite the house. I sprang over it, and leaning over its back, I could stare up at the mysterious window undisturbed. Yes, it was she, the charming maiden of my dream! But her eye did not seem to seek me as I had at first thought; her glance was cold and unfocused, and had it not been for an occasional motion of the hand and arm, I might have thought that I was looked at a cleverly painted pictures.
I was so lost in my adoration of the mysterious being in the window, so aroused and excited throughout all my nerve centers, that I did not hear the shrill voice of an Italian street hawker, who had been offering me his wares for some time. Finally, he touched me on the arm; I turned hastily and commanded him to let me alone. But he did not cease his entreaties, asserting that he had earned nothing today, and begging me to buy some small trifle from him. Full of impatience to get rid of him I put my hand in my pocket. With the words: “I have more beautiful things here.” he opened the under drawer of his box and held out to me a little, round pocket mirror.
In it, as he held it up before my face, i could see the deserted house behind me, the window, and the sweet face of my vision there.
I bought the little mirror at once, for I saw that it would make it possible for me to sit comfortably and inconspicuously, and yet watch the window. The longer I looked at the reflection in the glass, the more I fell captive to a weird and quite indescribable sensation, which I might almost call a waking dream. It was as if a lethargy had lamed my eyes, holding them fastened on the glass beyond my power to loosen them.
Through my mind there rushed the memory of an old nurse’s tale of my earliest childhood. When my nurse was taking me off to bed, and I showed an inclination to stand peering into the great mirror in my father’s room, she would tell me that when children looked into mirrors in the night time they would see a strange, hideous face there, and their eyes would be frozen so that they could not move them again. The thought struck awe to my soul, but I could not resist a peep at the mirror, I was so curious to see the strange face. Once I did believe that I saw two hideous eyes shining out of the mirror. I screamed and fell down in a swoon.
All these foolish memories of my early childhood came trooping back to me. My blood ran cold through my veins, I would have thrown the mirror from me, but I could not. And now at last the beautiful eyes of the fair vision looked at me, her glance sought mine and shone deep down into my heart. The terror I had felt left me, giving way to the pleasurable pain of sweetest longing.
“You have a pretty little mirror there,” said a voice beside me. I awoke from my dream, and was not a little confused when I saw smiling faces looking at me from either side. Several persons had sat down upon my bench, and it was quite certain that my staring into the window, and my probably strange expression, had afforded them great cause for amusement.
“You have a pretty little mirror there,” repeated the man, as I did not answer him. His glance said more, and asked without words the reason of my staring so oddly into the little glass. He was an elderly man, neatly dressed, and his voice and eyes were so full of good nature that I could not refuse him my confidence. I told him that I had been looking in the mirror at the picture of a beautiful maiden who was sitting at a window of the deserted house. I went even further; I asked the old man if he had not seen the fair face himself. “Over there? In the old house — in the last window?” He repeated my questions in a tone of surprise.
“Yes, yes!” I exclaimed.
The old man smiled and answered: “Well, well , that was a strange delusion. My old eyes — thank Heaven for my old eyes! Yes, yes, sir. I saw a pretty face in the window there, with my own eyes; but it seemed to me to be an excellently well-painted oil portrait.”
I turned quickly looked toward the window; there was no one there, and the blind had been pulled down. “Yes,” continued the old man,” yes sir. Now it is too late to make sure of the matter, for just now the servant, who, as I know, lives there alone in the house of the Countess S., took the picture away from the window after he had dusted it, and let down the blinds.”
“Was it, then, surely a picture?” I asked again, in bewilderment.
“You can trust my eyes,” replied the man. “The optical delusion was strengthened by your seeing only the reflection in the mirror. And when I was in your years it was easy enough for my fancy to call up the picture of a beautiful maiden.”
“But the hand and arm moved,” I exclaimed. “Oh, yes, they moved, indeed they moved,” said the old man smiling, as he patted me on the shoulder. Then he arose to go, and bowing politely , closed his remarks with the words, “Beware of mirrors which can lie so vividly. Your obedient servant, sir.”
You can imagine how I felt when I saw that he looked upon me as a foolish fantast. I began to be convinced that the old man was right, and that it was only my absurd imagination which insisted on raising up mysteries about the deserted house.
I hurried home full of anger and disgust, and promised myself that I would not think of the mysterious house, and would not even walk through the avenue for several days. I kept my vow, spending my days working at my desk, and my evenings in the company of jovial friends, leaving myself no time to think of the mysteries which so enthralled me. Ad yet, it was just in these days that I would start up out of my sleep as if awakened by a touch, only to find that all that had aroused me was merely the thought of that mysterious being whom I had seen in my vision and in the window of the deserted house.
Even during my work, or in the midst of a lively conversation with my friends, I felt the same thought shoot through me like an electric current. I condemned the little mirror in which I had seen the charming picture to a prosaic daily use. I placed it on my dressing-table that I might bind my cravat before it, and thus it happened one day, when I was about to utilize it for this important business, that its glass seemed dull, and that I took it up and breathed on it to rub it bright again. My heart seemed to stand still, every fiber in me trembled in delightful awe.
Yes, that is all the name I can find for the feeling that came over me, when, as my breath clouded the little mirror, I saw the beautiful face of my dreams arise and smile at me through blue mists. You laugh at me? You look upon me as an incorrigible dreamer? Think what you will about it — the fair face looked at me from out of the mirror! But as soon as the clouding vanished, the face vanished in the brightened glass.
I will not weary you with a detailed recital of my sensations the next few days. I will only say that I repeated again the experiments with the mirror, sometimes with success, sometimes without. When I had not been able to call up the vision, I would run to the deserted house and stare up at the windows; but I saw no human being anywhere about the building. I lived only in thoughts of my vision; everything else seemed indifferent to me. I neglected my friends and my studies. The tortures in my soul passed over into, or rather mingled with, physical sensations which frightened me, and which at last made me fear for my reason.
One day, after an unusually severe attack, I put my little mirror in my pocket and hurried to the home of Dr. K., who was noted for his treatment of those diseases of the mind out of which physical diseases so often grow. I told him my story; I did not conceal the slightest incident from him, and I implored him to save me from the terrible fate which seemed to threaten me. He listened to me quietly, but I read astonishment in his glance. Then he said: “The danger is not as near as you believe, and I think that I may say that it can be easily prevented.
You are undergoing an unusual psychical disturbance, beyond a doubt. But the fact that you understand that some evil principle seems to be trying to influence you, gives you a weapon by which you can combat it. Leave your little mirror here with me, and force yourself to take up with some work which will afford scope for all your mental energy. Do not go to the avenue; work all day, from early to late, then take a long walk, and spend your evenings in the company of your friends. Eat heartily, and drink heavy, nourishing wines.
You see I am endeavoring to combat your fixed idea of the face in the window of the deserted house and in the mirror, by diverting your mind to other things, and by strengthening your body. You yourself must help me in this.”
I was very reluctant to part with my mirror. The physician, who had already taken it, seemed to notice my hesitation. He breathed upon the glass and holding it up to me, he asked: “Do you see anything?”
“Nothing at all,” I answered, for so it was.
“Now breathe on the glass yourself,” said the physician, laying the mirror in my hands.
I did as he requested. There was a vision even more clearly than before.
“There she is!” I cried aloud.
The physician looked into the glass, and then said: “I cannot see anything. But I will confess to you that when I looked into the glass again and the physician laid his his hand upon the back of my neck, the face appeared again and the physician, looking into the mirror over my shoulder, turned pale. Then he took the little glass from my hands, looked at it attentively, and locked it into his desk, returning to me after a few moments silent thought.
“Follow my instructions strictly,” he said. “I must confess to you that I do not understand those moments of your vision. But I hope to be able to tell you more about it soon.”
Difficult as it was to me, I forced myself to live absolutely according to the doctor’s orders. I soon felt the benefit of the steady work and the nourishing diet, and yet I was not free from those terrible attacks. which would come either at noon, or more intensely still at midnight. Even in the midst of a merry company, in the enjoyment of wine and song, glowing daggers seemed to pierce my heart, and all the strength of my intellect was powerless to resist their might over me. I was obliged to retire, and could not return to my friends until I had recovered from my condition of lethargy.
It was in one of these attacks, an unusually strong one, that such an irresistible, mad longing for the picture of my dreams came over me, that I hurried out into the street and ran toward the mysterious house. While still at a distance from it, I seemed to see lights shining out through the fast-closed blinds, but when I came near, I saw that all was dark. Crazy with my desire, I rushed to the door; it fell back before the pressure of my hand. I stood in the dimly lighted vestibule, enveloped in a heavy, close atmosphere. My heart beat in strange fear and impatience.
Then suddenly, a long, sharp tone, as from a woman’s throat, thrilled through the house. I know not how it happened that I found myself suddenly in a great hall brilliantly lighted and furnished in an old-fashioned magnificence of golden chairs and strange Japanese ornaments. Strongly perfumed incense arose in blue clouds about me.
“Welcome. Welcome, sweet bridegroom. The hour has come … our bridal hour.”
To be continued…